Stand up for productivity

So this is what Australia’s productivity debate has come to?

A week after it was announced that the $52 billion Gorgon LNG project in Western Australia was a staggering $9 billion over budget, it has emerged that the major contractors on the project have issued new rules designed to boost the productivity of workers and get costs back under control.

The key measure in the rules: No sitting down.

“Labour is not allowed to sit down during normal working hours, unless their duties require,” the rules say, according to a reports.

“Chairs and benches are not allowed on site unless used for work. Labour is allowed to sit during normal working hours in the approved shade huts for short rest breaks and hydration.”

Breaches of “discipline” will see wages being docked.

It’s all a little draconian and quite frankly a little silly. But clearly there are some serious problems on this project and everyone is pretty fed up – although trying to blame everything on the “labour” (try calling your staff that today and see how far you get!) is pretty tough when you see this sort of thing coming down from management.

Will it improve productivity? No idea, but maybe. Will any potential productivity gains be erased by treating workers in this way? Pretty likely, I’d say.

To me, this incident again underlines the struggle that managers have around productivity – we all know that it needs to improve, but finding ways to measure it and then practically raise productivity is not easy.

The avalanche of reports and surveys and investigations that we have into productivity-related problems – and it has been frankly never-ending this year – help us identify problems, but do little to help managers find practical solutions.

What I would like to see is governments spend money developing productivity toolkits. These kits, which would have to be produced across a variety of industries and businesses sizes, would provide managers with practical tools to:

  • Put in place systems and processes to measure and report on the productivity of their current workforce.
  • Advice on to how to use these results to find productivity improvements. That is, real, practical measures which managers can employ at a variety of levels, such as day-to-day productivity boosts and short, medium and long-term productivity projects.
  • Advice on how to engage staff and other stakeholders.

This could be complemented with tailored consulting solutions for firms (who I am sure would be happy to meet subsidised costs) and in-depth training for managers.

We must find ways to take productivity out of the theoretical and into the practical. It is clear that our managers are not equipped with the tools to drive productivity improvements – so instead of whinging about them, let’s give them those tools.

James Thomson is a former editor of BRW’s Rich 200 and the publisher of SmartCompany and LeadingCompany.